It was a bleak December afternoon — overcast, chilly, the light rapidly fading. We were driving on one of Downtown’s less favored residential streets, and everything about the passing scene added to the gloom. It had rained the day before, and the mostly grassless yards were muddy messes. Trees with twisted black trunks and bare branches framed the battered shotgun houses, all of which were desperately in need of new paint, roof shingles and lap siding. And then we saw it. In the middle of the otherwise drab block, someone had decorated their front door for the season, wrapping it in silver foil with a red ribbon diagonally blazoned across, an evergreen wreath hung two-thirds of the way up. The effect was stunning. What little daylight remained on the street seemed somehow concentrated and shot right back to us. Just as my heart lifted, my companion exclaimed, “Joy to the world!”
Mobilians have long understood the power of Christmas decorations to inspire and delight. When I was a kid during the 1960s, I spent the holiday season with my grandmother at Georgia Cottage on Spring Hill Avenue. She never failed to place a huge holly and Spanish moss wreath on the front door, and the interior smelled deliciously of clove balls that were suspended by red velvet loops from antique brass lamps in the wide hallway. But her Christmas tree in the front parlor was the real showstopper. It seemed to go up forever beneath the high ceilings, and its profusion of ornaments provided endless diversion.
Our Port City Christmases always included several excursions. Among these was a drive down Government Street, which I recall as festooned with lights and other decorations. There were also little trips out to Spring Hill where my grandmother and parents liked to see how some of the newer homes had been decorated. But for me the best display was just a stone’s throw from Georgia Cottage at Siena Vista. What for most of the year was an ordinary straight street lined with modest one-story brick homes was transformed into an effulgent wonderland jammed with traffic. I stared wide-eyed at the multitudinous lights and inventive little tableaux, some of which included live holy families and Santas, while the adults around me oohed and ahhed. In my memory of those days, there was no place in town more animated or spectacular.
Today, some 50 years later, Mobile’s Christmas displays still have the capacity to surprise and enchant. Some of the locales have changed, to be sure, but the result is the same. Government Street isn’t much decorated anymore, alas, but Bienville Square’s venerable cast-iron fountain is tastefully draped with little white lights. The Oakleigh Garden District is always worth a look as well, not just to see the quirky white decorations strung across the tree-canopied streets there, but to thrill to the warm scenes of Christmas tree lights refracted through historic beveled-glass windows and leaded sidelights. Siena Vista still does its thing, of course, and I never fail to take it in for nostalgia’s sake. But the hot ticket in recent years has been Bellingrath Gardens and Home, where more than three million lights softly bathe the faces of excited visitors from miles around.
As a bonus, there are also those scattered neighborhoods where dedicated denizens go all out and do the “whole Clark Griswold thing, ” to quote my friend Lawren Largue, the editor of this magazine. Their over-the-top individual displays are a lot of fun, especially for small children. As I age, however, I find myself taking greater pleasure in the modest heartfelt efforts like that Downtown foil-wrapped front door not so long ago. There, too, is the human spirit, and its expression of faith and joy in the season.
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John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
Text by John S. Sledge